NOAA 99-R511
Contact: Jana Goldman


The coral reefs around the Florida Keys will receive some close study this summer as scientists, including the first visiting team from Japan, will live and conduct research below the sea during six missions in the Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's underwater laboratory, Aquarius. And, thanks to technology, people with access to the Internet can share in the adventure.

Aquarius, funded by NOAA's National Undersea Research Program (NURP) is unique because it is the only underwater laboratory that allows scientists to live and work beneath the sea for 10-day missions to study coral reefs and our coastal ocean.

The first mission goes down June 14 and returns June 23. Researchers from the University of South Carolina will study how water movement affects coral reef organisms. The next mission, July 13-20, is the first cooperative program using saturation diving between NOAA and JAMSTEC, the Japan Marine Science and Technology Center. Two scientists from Japan and one American researcher (who speaks Japanese) will study coral productivity and growth data to better understand the role coral reefs play in the global carbon cycle. The mission season ends in November. A list of the other scheduled missions follows.

"Aquarius 2000 takes underwater laboratories to the next level," said Dr. Steven Miller, director of the National Undersea Research Center at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, which administers and operates the Aquarius program. The Center is one of six National Undersea Research Centers that fall under NOAA's Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research.

"We have new technology and operational protocols to enhance the scientists' ability to work underwater," Miller said. "And now, the public can watch and learn about our program through our homepage: webcams, chat sessions, and expedition logs will all be available."

The Web site is:

Moored in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, Aquarius sits 60 feet deep at the base of a coral reef wall off Key Largo. Contained within its metal walls are all the comforts of home along with a well-equipped laboratory. Aquarius is often compared with NASA's space station.

Because of its location, Aquarius operates as a valuable tool for coral reef study.

"Coral reefs are threatened by increasing amounts of pollution, overharvesting of fisheries, diseases of unknown origin, and global change," Miller said. "The Aquarius program helps scientists better understand our changing ocean and coral reefs."

NOAA's mission is to describe and predict changes in the earth's environment and to conserve and manage wisely the nation's coastal and marine resources.

The full mission schedule is:

June 14-23: How water movement affects coral reef organisms, University of South Carolina;
July 13-20: Coral productivity and growth data to better understand the role coral reefs play in the global carbon cycle, NOAA and JAMSTEC
August 9-18: Detailed studies of underwater light and animal ecology, University of Maryland
September 13-22: Feeding biology of corals: Effects of water movement, particle capture, prey behavior and growth rate, University of Maryland, College Park
October 11-20: Factors affecting sponge growth at Conch Reef, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, Virginia Institute of Marine Science
November 8-17: The ecological significance of growth and reproduction by an important sediment producing green seaweed, University of Hawaii